The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

I started reading Edith Wharton this summer with Ethan Frome.  Then I read her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence.  And now, I’ve finished The House of Mirth, which I’ve decided is one of my all time favorite books.  I’ve elevated Wharton into that crowd of writers that I love to study because their real lives are as interesting as their fictional creations.  My major favorites over the years have been Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Clemens, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens.

Wharton will be next when I start reading her biography.  By studying the works of these writers, their lives, and the history of their times, I’ve been able to build a rough mental map of the changes in English and American society.  This 4th dimensional guide chronicles the battles of the sexes from a hazy beginning in 1840 with the novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson, then with clearer focus using Jane Austen, and after that, with ever sharper focus with Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott and others moving forward in time.

I wish I had read Wharton as a teenager, but I’m not sure if I could have understood her then.  So I’ll change that wish.  I wish I could have understood Wharton as a teenager.  In high school all I knew was I wanted a girlfriend, but never entertained the idea of why a girl would want me as a boyfriend.  It was physical craving.  At the time, girls appeared to want boyfriends just as much as us guys wanted them, and we falsely assumed they craved us in the same way.  Of the girls I did get to date, they kept their true desires well hidden from me.  I think few teen males recognized the torture teen girls go through in judging their worthiness, and fewer still understood what girls wanted.  Even the most toady of young men automatically assume a pretty girl will want them.  If I had understood Edith Wharton as a teenager I would have understood why I wasn’t that appealing to the opposite sex in high school even though I wasn’t bad looking, had decent manners, a job and pocket money.  All boys want is a female body to play with, what girls want is illustrated in The House of Mirth.

Edith Wharton writes about communication between men and women, and the nature of women, in such a way that it could have saved me years of miscommunication.  Wharton’s observations on society and sexual politics are so enlightening that I wonder why she isn’t given more credit as an early founder of feminism.

The House of Mirth is about Lily Bart, a woman who wants to capitalize on her beauty, but in the process of various negotiations realizes that closing the deal won’t give her the complete freedom she desires.  Lily’s motives are unclouded by romantic notions.  Marriage is a business arrangement, and a great marriage means high social status.  However, as she reels in each potential groom to the point of getting a good look at them, Lily ends up deciding their price is too high and throws them back.  She is sidetrack from this husband hunting by the charming, but poor, Lawrence Selden, who pollutes her mind with ethical considerations.  She is attracted to Selden but she cannot consider him an appropriate catch for her matrimonial fishing.

What Lily discovers over and over again is women of her time are totally dependent on men.  At the dawn of the twentieth century there were women who could make their own way, but they led miserable lives.  The House of Mirth (1905) makes a great companion novel to Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser, a novel about a young woman moving to the big city to live on her own.  Carrie and Lily even live in New York at the same time for a short overlapping period, but in different social strata.  Jump ahead to The Sun Also Rises (1927) and see how Hemingway presents Lady Brett Ashley, but think of her as Lily Bart recast and sexually liberated, after having evolved through Ellen Olenska from The Age of Innocence.

The history of the development of the female mind in the twentieth century can be shown through these characters and other fictional women.  Their security and happiness is dependent on men.  Wharton shows through Lily Bart what happens to women when they fail to negotiate a deal with a man.  Wharton holds out hope that men and women can find paths of communication and even understanding, but in the end of each novel there is always failure to communicate.  I like to think The Age of Innocence is graduate work for where Wharton left off with The House of Mirth.

Both books are about men and women trying to decipher the cryptic messages thrown across the gender gap.  Even during moments of honest straight talking, like the scene where Simon Rosedale offers a very practical marriage arrangement, or the one where George Trenor explains what he wants for helping Lily financially, the two sexes can understand each other’s words, but not each others needs and desires.  Wharton seems to imply that men can fulfill women’s fantasies by buying them, or women can manipulate men by outsmarting them, but in either scenario one or both of the sexes must live in a fantasy.

I need to read more Wharton, and to read about her, to understand Wharton’s real position on the battle of the sexes, but I get the feeling that she is gloomy on whether or not either gender can understand the other.  Women often claim men are transparent to them, and believe that men haven’t a clue in understanding women, but I think Wharton goes way beyond disproving that cliché.

These novels suggest that Wharton thinks both sexes are opaque to each other.  Naturally, I assume that Wharton knows the female point of view, but I also feel she has some insight into males.  She goes way past the stereotype that men only have one thing on their mind, and she doesn’t seem corrupted by the philosophy of romance.

Wharton grew up rich, married well, but probably didn’t achieve her own freedom until after her divorce in 1913, a period between these two novels.  I’m hoping that reading more about Wharton’s life will reveal greater depths to her novels.

The Value of Women

Lily Bart is exceptionally beautiful and everyone expects her to marry a very rich man, one that would position her near the peak of society even though her own family has lost its fortune.  Lily dwells among the upper crust, without wealth herself, by the grace of her beauty and knowledge their society.  She makes herself useful to her rich women friends as a social secretary, but beyond the skill of dressing fabulously and being an attraction at parties, Lily is helpless.  Simon Rosedale, a Jew trying to break into high society, wants to marry her because of her connections, but Lily is repulsed by his social climbing and personal manners.  Rosedale even tells Lily that he doesn’t expect her to love him and that his ambition is to have a wife that could lord it over all the other society ladies through access to his wealth.

The more Lily tries to live up to insights inspired by Selden, the harder her life becomes.  I don’t know if this was Wharton’s intention, but The House of Mirth illustrates how women are property, and their value is set by a commodity market of men, with their price rising and lowering depending on the rumors of the day.  Lily’s stock takes a nosedive when she becomes a pawn in a game between a vicious woman friend and that woman’s husband.

What Do Women Want?

I think The House of Mirth makes an excellent sequel to Pride and Prejudice.  Jane Austen set the standard for novels about women looking for a rich husband.  Lily Bart wants her own Mr. Darcy, but Edith Wharton goes deeper into examining the bargain women make when selling themselves into money.  Romantic writers like to suggest its all for love, but really it’s about freedom.  Just another retelling of Cinderella – escape from floor scrubbing.  When do we get a new story where Cinderella gives her step-sisters the finger while shouting over her shoulder, “I’m out of here, I’m going to make my own damn fortune, and buy me my own castle.”  Is it any wonder why Scarlett O’Hara became a towering heroine to women in 1936?

From 1905 to 2008 women make fantastic advancements.  Many, if not most, can live on their own in the developed western world, although often poorly.  Times have changed too, in the marketing of women.  In 1905 a woman is valued as a merger of family assets, for running a house, raising kids, cooking, and having social skills.  Today it seems women are valued for their bodies and sexual talents, at least in common fiction, although that depends on which gender creates the fiction.  Strangely enough, what women want hasn’t changed much since 1905, they still want freedom, protection, and wealth, but what they are advertising for sale has changed.  I wonder if Wharton would be shocked by the blatant sexual bargaining of today?

Wharton never suggests that Lily might study stock investing with George Trenor, so she could make her own riches.  Lily refuses to trade sex and become a well-to-do mistress.  She only considers work when all her other options are gone, and she’s a failure at that.  Wharton could have written a novel about Lily starting a fashionable business and succeeding on her own, but she didn’t.  Happiness always comes down to finding the right man, and Lily, literally worth her weight in gold and diamonds, loses at negotiating because of miscommunications and failures to close deals.

Lily’s beauty is powerful enough to attract armies of average men, with average incomes, but she doesn’t consider lowering her asking price.  She could have easily gotten a reasonable wealthy man, an up-and-comer, but she doesn’t.  I assume Wharton wants us to see the corrupting influence of the idle rich.  At one point Lily is dining with a roomful of society’s best and she realizes they are all twits and not a single Mr. Darcy among them.

I have to wonder if the frantic desire by modern women to be thin and beautiful is just compulsive perfecting of their product.  Is looking great the feminine form of ambition?  It’s surprising that the winners at Miss America pageants aren’t decided by bids, like at art auctions.  Lily Bart could have been married several times but she always takes herself off the block when she learns too much about who is going to buy her.

And I have to wonder what Wharton is telling her lady readers.  Settle before it’s too late?  Don’t be greedy?  Learn a trade?  Wharton had been married twenty years to her wealthy husband by the time this novel came out.  She’d be divorced in another eight.  Edith is no Jane Austen, her eyes were not clouded by thoughts of love.  Lily wasn’t even expecting friendship.  She wanted to be free and rich.  She was an alpha female believing she deserved the alpha male.  So what was Wharton telling us?  I don’t think I’ll know until I read books about her and then reread The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, but here is something to think about now.

As a male I can fantasize about living in the world of The House of Mirth and meeting Lily Bart.  If I was realistic, I’d picture myself middle class, having to work like Lawrence Selden, and I do identify with him and what she says to Lily.  I can easily imagine being very attracted to Lily and wanting her, but if I was having a realistic historical daydream, I’d realize that owning Lily would be like winning a yacht on a bet but not be able to afford a slip in a marina, or afford to hire a crew, or even have the money to take it out on a trip.  Selden lived in a modest apartment and I can’t imagine him marrying Lily and parking her there for a new life after the world traveling and luxury that Lily considered basic needs.  It’s easy to have a sexual fantasy about a beautiful woman, but it’s much harder to create a fantasy that will make her happy too.

Women reading The House of Mirth will learn different lessons than men who read it.  Like men in Wharton novels, I can only guess at what women will think.  Most women are inflicted by the romance gene and I assume many will rationalize marrying Selden.  Most women do not marry rich men, so they settle for the Lawrence Seldens of the world.  There are plenty of women who’d accept boredom and marry Percy for his immense wealth.  And I imagine that there are lots of women who would have jumped at Simon Rosedale’s offer, or even George Trenor’s proposition.  And many women would consider it perfectly fine to exposed Judy for what she was and take her rich husband.  The real question is how many women would find another way out?  One that doesn’t involve men?

I think that’s the difference between now and then.  I’ve often wondered why so many modern women over fifty prefer to live single.  Some of my single women friends joke they would give in and marry again if the man was very rich, but anything less, and a man is too much trouble.  I guess many of my lady friends would be like Lily, and reject those rich guys too.  The difference between 1905 and 2008 is millions of woman can afford to be picky, whereas Lily did not.  That’s what the core of women’s liberation is about – being able to live without a man.

Jim

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, is a story about how people never communicate their real feelings.  Wharton suggests at the end of her book, set twenty-five years after the start, that the next generation is more open, but I’m not sure even a hundred years later, in our own times, if this is true.  The love triangle of Newland Archer, his fiancée May Welland, and her older cousin, Ellen Olenska is shown through the viewpoint of Newland’s mind.  Edith Wharton does an excellent job of taking on a male point-of-view, considering the cultural restrictions of her time, and her consideration for the minds of people from the 1870s.

AgeOfInnocence

The Age of Innocence is a story of culture and manners and their impact on people.  Newland Archer knows what he’s suppose to do, and how other people are suppose to act, but within his own mind he wants to be different, and imagines that maybe other people do too, but his life is frustrated by the few clues he gets to verify his theories.  He thinks he has the perfect young woman lined up to be his wife and then he meets a woman who has run away from her husband, a Count no less, abandoning wealth and position, to flaunt traditional behavior.

Countess Ellen Olenska is described as looking old at thirty, and no where near as beautiful as her younger cousin May, at twenty-two.  Yet, Newland Archer finds himself more attracted to Ellen.  Plenty of other men do too, and readers are never sure how many men are chasing Ellen, or how many are catching her.  Many men want to make her their mistress, but we’re never told the details of the relationships because we only get to know what Archer knows.  He gets conflicting information from Ellen and the people who know her.  Archer is never sure what May is thinking, or Ellen.  He often plays games, telling himself if this happens, he’ll do this, and it means that, but they never work out like he plans.

Archer wants to tell May, sorry old sport, but you’re as dull as your society, and then run away with Ellen.  We know that even in Wharton’s time, 1920, men were doing that, and readers today probably have a very hard time understanding why Newland didn’t just chuck it all for love, but then I guess that’s why Edith called her novel the age of innocence about the 1870s.  In our times, we act on our impulses but do we communicate why?

People today still don’t say what they’re thinking but instead communicate with a strategy like the old Battleship game, where players try to guess the location of hidden ships on a grid.  Readers following along behind Newland Archer and watch his strategic plans and waits with him to see if his remarks hit anything in the minds of May and Ellen, and then ponders along with Archer about May and Ellen’s commands back and if they offer any clues to what they are thinking.  Even to the end, what May knows about Archer’s feelings for Ellen is ambiguous to the reader, but Wharton lets us know that May is no dummy and is playing her own game with as much passion as Newland’s.

We know even less about what Countess Olenska is thinking.  Is Archer someone special to her, or is he just one of many men that she plays along.  And does Archer really want to know?  Edith Wharton has written a beautiful masterpiece about the battle between the sexes.  The ending is perfect.  Reading this novel makes me, and I assume other readers, wonder why people don’t just say what they are thinking.  My guess is we’re afraid of shattering our fantasies.  Our expectations of other people are all built on fantasy, speculation and desires.  If men knew what women were thinking it would be crushing blows to our egos and sexual fantasies.  If women knew what men were thinking it would be the end of romance.

I think Wharton knew this.  I’m guessing Countess Olenska knew this, and from the last scene I think Newland Archer knew this, and we’re given hints that even May eventually learned this truth.  But we never know anything for sure, because Wharton knew that, too.

Jim

Ethan Frome

For my May monthly selection for the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge I decided to read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  This is my first reading experience with Wharton, and I was very impressed.  Ethan Frome was first published in 1911, but is set earlier, in a time before cars, when people lived very differently from how they do now.  I listened to an unabridged edition of this book from Recorded Books read by George Guidall, and as soon as I started listening I knew I was hearing very fine writing.

The reason I joined the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge was to seek out books I’d normally never read, and to discover views of life that would be surprising and novel, and I think Wharton succeeded well with those goals.  Ethan Frome is a very short novel that is often assigned to school kids to read, and I can understand why.  The writing is vivid, sharp and full of details that should stimulate a lot of discussion with young modern minds.  At one point Ethan talks about stars and constellations and regrets he wasn’t able to escape from small town life to become educated and pursue scientific ambitions.  We seldom hear 19th century characters talk about science.

Ambition versus reality is a common thread throughout the story, and I can’t help but think any reader of this novel not comparing their own life with Ethan and Mattie.  We all want more than we’re given, and Wharton creates a rather horrific analogy of being trapped by circumstances beyond our control.  The heavy ironic ending would fit naturally into a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.

Classic novels of the past are a vehicle of time travel for me, especially ones like Ethan Frome that are written with a significant accumulation of details.  I started listening to Ethan Frome just after listening to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein, a science fiction novel.  I was surprised by the stark contrast of details and lack of details.  Heinlein provided damn few details about his vision of the future, instead telling his story mostly in dialog.  Wharton told her story in a chronicle of observations, descriptions of moods and voice, and sparse dialog.  It would be fantastic if science fiction writers could make-up such realistic details about the future for their stories.

The Heinlein book was overtly about sexual relationships, but it was unrealistic.  The Wharton book dealt with sexual undercurrents at a time when writers couldn’t write directly about sex.  It was far more realistic.

Jim

* I was disturb by the number of out of print editions of Ethan Frome on the web that seemed to be no more than traps to get people to look at ads.  In the old Internet days there were a few sites for free books that would nicely format the texts for reading online.  These ad honeypots did not do that.  A lot of these sites were geared to school kids, knowing they had to research the book.  Some of these sites offered study guides, which is admirable, although the content on many were thin.  I’m hoping over time some of these study guide sites will emerge as true centers of study, and not just for school kids.  I think all of these book sites should try to format the text to make online reading easy, and offer links to common ebook formats for people who want to read on ebooks, PDAs, phones and laptops.  It would also be nice if they could integrate their ads into a layout that is more appealing to the eyes.  Fewer ads should get more attention, and if placed properly they shouldn’t detract from the content.  Most of the time the layout was so bad I immediately closed my browser tab.